The most inspirational man in football was born without hands.
Mark Speckman, a 60-year-old coaching lifer, never deemed his situation as a handicap. He’s been without fingers and palms but never without ambition.
How can you miss and bemoan what you’ve never had? He played the trombone at Carlmont High School in San Mateo County. He was a small-college All-America linebacker at Azusa Pacific, once intercepting a pass and rumbling 71 yards for a touchdown in 1975, much to the anguish of Mount San Antonio College offensive coordinator John Volek.
Volek, later Sacramento State’s coach, became fast friends with Speckman, inspired by the man’s drive.
“Incredible man, great coach,” Volek said Thursday night, an hour before introducing Speckman, the offensive coordinator at Division III Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., as the keynote speaker for the Sacramento Valley Chapter National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Awards Banquet.
Speckman has carved out a remarkable coaching career, his staple of the Fly offense – with a speed back always in motion – permeating Central Valley high schools and small colleges across the nation. The Fly even had a stint in the Canadian Football League.
“That’s defined me: I’m the guy with no hands,” said Speckman, as candid as he is comedic. “The guy who played without hands, coaches without hands. You learn to figure things out. Squeezing toothpaste can be a challenge. Find a way. I can’t tie my shoes, so I wear a lot of loafers. I once got called for illegal use of hands in a college game. Terrible call! And you think you have bad officiating up here?”
Speckman captivated the audience at the Sacramento Elks Lodge, the room overflowing with athletes, family and coaches. Honors went to former Mira Loma coach Don Brown, the father of the wing-T in Sacramento in the 1960s and ’70s; Dave Morton, a longtime area coach; former Folsom co-coach Troy Taylor; and 2015 state champions Del Oro and East Nicolaus. Also inducted was Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo, the Grant player gunned down hours before a Pacers game last November.
Grant coach Mike Alberghini gave a touching speech about Clavo, whose mother, Nicole, sitting nearby, smiled and wept.
Then Speckman took over. He was insightful, blunt, hilarious. He implored student-athletes to maximize their untapped potential. Speckman’s message resonates because if he can achieve without hands, what’s your excuse?
He coached some of the best prep teams in Sac-Joaquin Section history, the Merced Bears in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He inspired Ernie Cooper to incorporate the Fly offense over a long career, punctuated by a 2012 CIF State championship at Granite Bay. Speckman in 1995 was hired by one-time UC Davis assistant coach Dan Hawkins to be the offensive coordinator at small-college powerhouse Willamette in Oregon. Speckman took over as head coach in 1998, a run that lasted through 2011. He coached running backs for two seasons with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL, then jumped at the chance to install the Fly at Lawrence.
“I never thought I’d be coaching in Wisconsin, or that I’d even coach in college,” Speckman said in a quiet moment before his speech. “All because of football. What a life. To see people at all levels implement my ideas, the Fly, it’s so cool. That’s what football can do. Life lessons. I was a kid with no hands, but football was a way for me to compete, to belong and to be better than OK.
“The first time I flew on an airplane was because of football. The first time I wore a suit was through football. I never let not having hands be a problem. I’ve focused on doing my deal, coaching, living my life, family man.”
Speckman paused, then continued: “Very rarely in coaching was I the first choice to be head coach. Happened at Livingston High, Merced, too. I was the second guy, then stepped in, then got going, and it was never an issue. No special keys, no special parking spot. Give me a football team, and let’s go.”
Speckman said this sport can continue to grow, especially if taught the right way. He fiercely defends football, what it can do for a man, a team, a town.
“It tears me apart when the game is torn down,” Speckman said. “There’s this illusion that we can be safe in life. Really? Parents let their kids drive cars, ride a skateboard. ... I just know this: Not until you do something really hard can you really feel good about yourself.”